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Stories From the Field: Jacob Lablah

Looking across the many rows of wood-and-mud shacks that house more than 12,000 people in a camp for displaced persons in Margibi County, Liberia, Jacob Lablah knows he still has work to do. The scene inside the camp varies little from day to day. Women sit patiently next to stands selling combs, seasonings, and rice while children carry toys made from tin cans and old plastic bottles, their shirts in tatters and hanging off their shoulders. Men play checkers on a splintered wooden board for hours. People here have no jobs, no means to improve their lives, and no real place to call home.

Hundreds of thousands of Liberians live in similar camps across the country, and it is in conditions like this that Lablah works to register voters and conduct civic education in preparation for Liberia's first national election since 1997. He was once a physics and math teacher but now has devoted himself entirely to teaching civics to his fellow Liberians. He founded a grassroots organization called Promoting Activities for Development and Sustenance (PADS), which is assisted by The Carter Center. He and his small staff educate voters in Margibi County's camps, in high schools, and across the region's villages and towns.

The process has been difficult at times. Many Liberians were skeptical that their votes mattered or that an election would bring change. Their primary concern was getting food for their families, said Lablah, not learning about government. But Lablah has helped them realize that the democratic process is the means for improving the quality of life in Liberia.

Lablah's work involves not only instructing voters about how to correctly fill out a ballot but also teaching residents the legal framework guiding elections and their human rights as
Liberian citizens. "We try to tell them that life is not yet finished," said Lablah.

"We try to make them understand that if they aren't a part of this
particular election, and they aren't a part of selecting and electing their policy leaders, certainly there will be no change."

The persistent efforts of Lablah, PADS, and other Carter Center partners in Liberia paid off with high voter turnout for the 2005 elections. Some Liberians waited overnight in line to vote, and others walked for up to seven hours to reach their polling stations.

Now that the historic election is over, Lablah will continue to educate Liberians about their civic rights and responsibilities.

"My greatest hope is sustaining a democracy," said Lablah. "The election is not the end of the road. It's the beginning."

Photo Credit: D. Hakes

This displaced persons camp outside Kakata, Liberia, is one of the places where Jacob Lablah registers people to vote.

Photo Credit: D. Hakes

Once a schoolteacher, Jacob Lablah now teaches civics to his fellow Liberians.

Photo Credit: D. Hakes

Students at St. Christopher Catholic High School where Jacob Lablah once taught.

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